He has thrown 215 professional innings over 168 minor-league outings, and at various points the kid from Las Vegas has called Viera, Fla., and Hagerstown, Md., and Harrisburg, Pa. and Syracuse, N.Y., and even Arlington, Va. home. During that summer he lived in the D.C. suburbs, he would rise some mornings with his brother in the other bedroom. One game behind and another ahead — a road-trip upcoming, a slump just behind — they could share that experience, the baseball life. Kind of.
“It’s hard to talk to Bryce about the minor-league grind,” Bryan Harper said.
On those days in the summer of 2014, when the Washington Nationals and the Potomac Nationals were both home, Bryce Harper would get in his car and drive north up 395 to Nationals Park, where he became an all-star and helped his team to the National League East title. Bryan Harper, nearly three years his elder, would get in his car and drive south down 395 to Pfitzner Stadium, where he would put in his own work, helping the P-Nats to the Carolina League title, the best you can do at high Class A.
“I think back on that team,” Bryan Harper said, “and you’re talking about lifelong friends.”
Bryan Harper said this last week, on the phone from West Palm Beach, Fla. A day earlier, he had thrown his first bullpen session in roughly 11 months, Tommy John surgery behind him, baseball uncertainty ahead. A week earlier, he had accompanied his kid brother to a few days of All-Star Game festivities, to the New Era party, in the clubhouse before the Home Run Derby, to the unveiling of the new “Harper 2,” Bryce’s cleat with Under Armour, to the game itself.
“I was tired,” Bryan said, “and I wasn’t even doing anything.”
There is, between these two, a fraternal bond as deep as you would expect. “Shoot, I talk to him just about every day,” Bryce said. But there is also an undeniable separation in their current lot.
After next season, Bryce Harper will be a free agent, and is very likely to sign the largest contract in the history of American sports. After this season, Bryan Harper will be a 28-year-old minor-league free agent, hoping the Nationals will sign him again. In 2010, the Nats selected Bryce, then a 17-year-old catcher at the College of Southern Nevada, with the first pick of the first round. In 2011, they selected Bryan, a junior reliever with national champion South Carolina, with the sixth pick of the 30th round, the 907th choice overall.
That’s a shadow. And yet . . .
“I think with Bryan, he’s somebody that doesn’t want to be known as my brother,” Bryce said. “He wants to be another Harper.”
Don’t confuse that, though, with being resentful of that status.
“I always thought Bryan was very comfortable and very secure in what he was doing, in trying to make his own path,” said Tripp Keister, who managed Bryan Harper at both low-Class A Hagerstown and high-Class A Potomac. “I always respected that about him. He was very proud of his brother. He loves his brother. But I always thought he had a very good outlook of what he had to do — work hard every day and try to get better.”
That pursuit was more tangible during those days back in 2014, when Bryan Harper was really establishing himself in the Nationals organization, or even back in 2012, his first full pro season, spent with Auburn in the short-season, Class A New York-Penn League. There, in the same summer Bryce was bursting onto the baseball scene by playing center field on the division-winning Nationals, Bryan threw 17 innings. He didn’t throw enough strikes, and the strikes he did throw were of poor quality. His velocity was down. He posted a 10.59 ERA. He allowed more than two-and-a-half base runners per inning. He was, frankly, lousy.
“I’m a realist,” Bryan Harper said. “I can look in the mirror and tell you what I see. I could say, ‘Oh, this and that, I’m getting robbed.’ No. I was pitching like [crap] and I wasn’t doing my job.”
That winter, he went home to Las Vegas, back to his parents, back to his brother and sister. And, he said, he developed a new attitude that doesn’t take self-help books or sports psychologists to employ: “Screw it.”
“Me and Bryce, we’re very self-aware,” Harper said. “I think we learned that from our parents. Sometimes you need to kick yourself in the ass. It was all about me, myself and I.”
So Bryan Harper kicked himself in the posterior, and got better. In 2013, his ERA dropped to 3.97 and his WHIP to 1.41 at low-Class A Hagerstown. In 2014, his ERA dropped to 2.66 and his WHIP to 1.14 at high-Class A Potomac. That summer in Potomac, when he shared Bryce’s apartment and drove south to Woodbridge, Va., for home games, he was promoted to Class AA Harrisburg — the real springboard to the majors.
And then he was sent back down.
Bryce Harper played 130 games in the minors over a season-and-a-half, and when he was called up to the majors at 19 — making his debut at Dodger Stadium, with friends and family on hand to see him scorch a double off the base of the center field wall — he never went back down, other than a game or two here and there to rehabilitate an injury. At 24 — Bryce’s age now — Bryan was demoted from Class AA back to Class A. How do you see the majors from there?
“That’s part of my job: You have to pick up the pieces of the guy and get him refocused,” Kiester said. “Most guys are pissed for a day, or maybe even an hour or two. I understand that. But then it’s got to be: Let’s get back to work, and get back to that climb.
“That’s what I love about Bryan and what I respected about Bryan so much. He took it the exact right way: He got back to work and said, ‘What do I need to do to get better?’ ”
There was the pitching part of it. But Bryan also learned something else from an experience Bryce never had: “That helped me know, even more, that I don’t ever want to have that feeling — being demoted, being sent down — again.”
Last August, the Syracuse Chiefs weren’t very good, but their left-handed reliever — a 6-foot-5, 205-pound 26-year-old who had learned to pitch — made heads turn. He threw 20 games at Harrisburg before getting promoted to Class AAA and the Nationals’ top affiliate because his 1.50 ERA and 0.79 WHIP warranted such a move. September was approaching, and in baseball, September doesn’t just mean Labor Day and back to school, it means major league rosters expand to 40, and guys who have never been to the show get the call.
“Bryan had worked his way into the conversation,” said Doug Harris, the Nationals’ vice president for player personnel, who oversees the farm system. “He was throwing more strikes, and the quality of his strikes was better. He’s always been a tough kid, someone who competed.”
This, even from the Nationals original scouting reports on Bryan back as a senior at Las Vegas High, stood out.
“He’s not a [jerk],” Bryce said of his older brother. “But on the mound, he wants to come at you, and he wants to kill you.”
But called to the major leagues? Really? If that had happened, it had to be a nod from the organization to Bryce, right?
“We would have been talking about this if his name was Bryan Smith,” Harris said.
With Syracuse playing Aug. 6 at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Harper had allowed an earned run in just three of his 19 appearances. His ERA was 2.70. His velocity sat at 92-93 mph. Opposing hitters had a .192 average against him. When Syracuse’s Lucas Giolito hit Scranton’s Aaron Judge with a pitch in the fourth, Harper came on in relief and struck out Ike Davis to get out of the inning. He allowed a pair of doubles in the fifth, and with two outs, he threw a fastball.
“Wait,” he thought. “That didn’t feel right.”
It didn’t hurt, per se, and he didn’t hear anything, and he was able to reach back and coax another fastball out of his body, which Eddy Rodriguez swung and missed. He went back to the dugout and the coaching staff told him good job; he was done for the day. Harper went to do his postgame work, and his arm tightened. He went in the next day to throw, and he couldn’t long-toss past 90 feet. He called Bryce.
“Bro,” he said, “I can’t pick up my arm.”
That summer, Bryce was going through his own issues — something was wrong with him physically, and it sapped his power and suppressed his average. By comparison, those are first-world problems. The Nats shut down Bryan Harper. A week later, he tried to throw again, but couldn’t. He went to Florida, had an MRI exam, some platelet-rich plasma treatments. He tried to put off the knife, but by November, there was no avoiding those three words pitchers dread: Tommy John surgery.
“Seeing his dream crushed, it’s just [lousy],” Bryce Harper said. “I remember sitting there talking to Kayla [Bryce’s wife], and I was crying. ‘This is terrible. This is absolutely brutal.’ You never want to see a family member go through this, and having him be so close — knowing that he could be here — it kills me. I know he can help us. I know it.”
For now, Bryan Harper’s home is West Palm Beach, Fla., where he shares a condo with another rehabilitating Nats pitcher, Aaron Barrett, and Barrett’s wife. Isolated not only from the majors but from competitive baseball, there is only a list of daily tasks for these guys, goals to reach — play catch, throw from a windup on flat ground, throw from a mound. There are no big outs to record, only little boxes to check. On Monday, he threw his fourth bullpen at 50 percent effort.
“Feeling great,” he said by text. “No setbacks.”
In his mind, Bryan Harper believes he could be ready to throw in games by September. Yet he also knows the Chiefs’ season ends Sept. 4, and he just might run out of games. He can see the dream becoming attainable again, yet he knows he might not throw competitively this season.
It sounds like his impending free agency won’t be an issue. “We have interest in bringing him back,” Harris said. It also sounds like this drive won’t be an issue, either.
“This injury, it gave it that extra little mmph: ‘I’ve got 16 months to get better, and I’m going to be the best I can,’ ” Bryce Harper said. “I want to be in big league camp and I’m going to take full advantage of that.”
He doesn’t believe he needs to throw any harder. He doesn’t believe he needs to pitch any differently. “In my opinion, I was on my way,” he said.
So think about that: A healthy Bryce Harper, playing his final season before free agency in Washington, where a healthy 28-year-old lefty reliever could make his debut. They have talked about it. They have texted about it. Brothers on completely different paths, ending up on the same field, for the same team, in the big leagues.
“We know that we can do it,” Bryan Harper said. “No doubt. It’s what we say to each other: ‘It’s gonna be so sick.’ ”
And Bryan Harper starts thinking about the details, about how the home bullpen is beyond right field at Nationals Park, and how, should he be called upon, he would open the door and jog right past his brother into a major league game. When Bryce Harper is particularly engaged in and inspired by a topic of conversation, he will often look at his arm and point out the hairs, standing on edge, chills.
Through the phone, Bryan Harper thinks about that moment.
“I’m getting chills right now,” he said.
More than anything, they are brothers.